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In basketball, when defending an opponent you look for tendencies and if it becomes apparent that the player you man up on relies on his right hand too often, you shade that side and force the player to beat you with his left. You force him out of his comfort zone and into mistakes.
Similarly, Ravens opponents will force them out of their running game and out of their comfort zone and into mistakes.
This is not a cutting edge formula for beating the Ravens. In fact it’s frighteningly familiar.
Steve McNair was supposed to change that for the Ravens. We thought he would bring a spark to a needy offense and threaten opponents more than Kyle Boller. Opposing defenses would respect the Ravens and McNair’s experience and not crowd the box. This would give Jamal Lewis more running room and take pressure off an offensive line not capable of handling a heavy load.
Yet nothing has changed. It’s the same old song and Jamal Lewis pitter-patter dance in the backfield. Defenses are bringing 8 and 9 into the box and they are disrupting plays by applying extraordinary heat to the Ravens interior offensive line with blitz packages intended to do exactly that.
When will it change? How will this train wreck of an offense get fixed? I’m wondering. You’re wondering. Derrick Mason is wondering.
"If anybody has answers on the offensive side of the ball, we would have fixed them by now," Mason said. "When you play a team that’s very good on offense and very good on defense, we’re going to have to score points. If anybody says any different, they’re lying to themselves. Someway, somehow we have to figure out a way to be consistent on offense."
Wouldn’t that be nice – consistency on offense.
Seems to me that the Ravens are pretty consistent offensively – it’s just the wrong kind of consistency.
There have been signs that this Ravens offense led by McNair can be better. His very first drive as a Raven in the preseason against the Giants was promising as was his very first regular season drive against the Bucs. Was that false hope? What made those drives so different?
First down made those drives different. The Ravens were more productive on first down and they left themselves with options on second down. They could open up their playbook and keep defenses guessing and guessing creates uncertainty and uncertainty forces mistakes.
On those two drives during which McNair was clearly in command, the Ravens on average faced second down and roughly 5 ½ yards. Overall through 2 weeks, the Ravens are facing second downs on average of 9+ yards. That dictates play calling. It gives the defense a decided advantage – one that the Ravens’ offensive line can’t bear the burden of.
To make matters worse, defenses have no respect for the Ravens ability or lack there of to go deep and Steve McNair’s questionable arm strength certainly won’t change that.
"You can call any number of verticals, but if they set themselves defensively where it’s not prudent to force the ball downfield, then what was intended as a vertical shot doesn’t turn out that way," Billick said.
In other words, the Ravens are predictable and that predictability to a large degree is directly related to their inefficiencies on first down. Those “vertical shots” will remain parked in the arsenal collecting dust.
The good news of course is that the Ravens are 2-0 and with a win on Sunday in Cleveland, they will either be in first place all alone or they’ll have a two game edge over the Pittsburgh Steelers. But if they can’t get the offense together, that will be a perch short-lived.
A weak offense like the Ravens’ will put too much pressure on the defense, particularly against good offensive football teams. And those old frustrations will kick in again. They’ve already gripped Derrick Mason and Jonathan Ogden’s brief spat with Billick accompanied by a thrown helmet certainly indicates a frustrated player.
Perhaps the offense is simply a work in progress. It better be. But if it is and the Ravens are truly building something, how dangerous might they be later in the season?
They say in baseball that the truly great pitchers find a way to win even when they don’t have their best stuff. Maybe that was true of Steve McNair on Sunday. But without great stuff, a pitcher needs to get ahead in the count. Similarly the Ravens offense needs to get much better on first down.
Otherwise, opponents will keep forcing them to the left and if they do, the Ravens could be left out come January.